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Captain Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth and Connemara

The goat farm at Connemara. IMAGE BY JANE IZARD

By Missy Craver Izard

In the mid-1830s, C.G. Memminger of Charleston — and a future member of Jefferson Davis’ Confederate cabinet — ventured to Flat Rock in search of a summer home. Unable to find anything he liked, he purchased land and hired architect Charles F. Reichardt to build a large dwelling he christened Rock Hill. Today, the house is known as Connemara, or simply The Carl Sandburg Home.

Memminger contracted carpenter James B. Rosamond to build the house, kitchen and stable at Rock Hill and to function effectively as a general contractor. Little is known about Rosamond beyond what may be gleaned from the federal census records. He was born around 1810 in in Abbeville County, South Carolina, where a large number of Palatinate Germans settled after 1760. Memminger brought stone mason Patrick Dugan and a brick mason named John Kenney from Charleston to Flat Rock to do the masonry work but hired a number of locals including Kinson Middleton. The majority of the work was complete by the time the Memmingers arrived at Flat Rock near the end of July 1839 and the house was at least partially furnished.

Ellison Adger Smyth owned Rock Hill from 1900 to1942. Following the lead of many wealthy Charlestonians, he purchased Rock Hill for his summer home and renamed it Connemara after his father’s ancestral home in Ireland. He built a large barn and fenced in pastures for livestock and for more than 20 years, Smyth and his family enjoyed Connemara as a summer retreat. In 1924 he added electricity, plumbing and heat to the home and made the house his full-time residence.

Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth was born on October 26, 1847, the son of Irish born Presbyterian minister Thomas Smyth who had arrived in Charleston in 1831 and married Margaret Adger in 1832 — daughter of the influential Charleston businessman James Adger. The Adger family prospered greatly from shipping, warehousing and hardware and operated warehouses in the area known as Adger’s Wharf. After his death in 1858, James Adger left $10,000 to his grandson Ellison to be made available to him upon his 21st birthday — a sum equivalent to about a half a million dollars in today’s money.

Ellison’s education included home schooling and private teachers. He had the advantage of growing up in the home of his antiquarian father whose collection of books, maps and manuscripts were used to supplement his education and helped prepare to enroll in the South Carolina Military Academy (The Citadel) in his teenage years. In 1864, Ellison left school to volunteer for the Confederate Amy, joining up with the 44th Regiment of the S.C. Militia before transferring to the Arsenal Academy Cadets. His gallantry at the Battle of Honey Hill earned him a promotion to sergeant. After the war he became a captain in the Washington Artillery Rifle Club, a title he used for the rest of his life.

Smyth began his business career immediately after the Civil War as a junior clerk at the firm of J.E. Adger and Company, a hardware wholesaler. While on a business trip to Baltimore for the Adgers, Elllison met and fell in love with Julia Gambrill, who he glimpsed as she rode past him in a trolley car. He followed her home where he received her father’s permission to formally court the young lady. The couple were married in 1869 and first lived with his mother and father in Charleston until a new business venture took him and his family to another part of the state. Together they had 12 children, including eight daughters and four sons — seven of whom died before their seventh birthday.

Charleston began to lose its dominance over wholesale trade during the 1860s and 1870s due to unfavorable freight rates and the proliferation of wholesalers in inland towns previously supplied by Charleston merchants; perhaps it was this shift in wholesale trade or the influx of manufacturing machinery coming into the port of Charleston at the Adgers’ piers from industrial powerhouses such as Manchester, England that drew Smyth’s attention to the up-and-coming textile industry and ultimately led him into the business. Whatever the reason, he was entering unchartered territory — he had never even been inside a textile mill. By the end of the 1870s, Smyth became convinced that it was better to invest in the emerging textile industry of the Upstate.

In cooperation with Charleston capitalist Francis J. Pelzer, Smyth decided to organize a cotton mill on the banks of the Saluda River in Anderson County. The first mill of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company was built in 1881 and three more mills were added during the next 15 years. Smyth served as the president and treasurer of Pelzer Manufacturing Company for 43 years before he sold it to Lockwood, Green and Company in 1923.

The mill at Pelzer had a profound effect on the development of the textile industry in the Upstate. From the beginning, Pelzer Mill took advantage of the newest technology available: It was the first cotton mill to use incandescent lights and in 1895 Pelzer installed the first Draper Automatic Looms ever sold. The Pelzer mills also used electricity from generating stations, automatic tying-in-machines and new electric drives. Throughout the years, the Pelzer mill community expanded to a village of 400 cottages housing 3,000 workers.

In addition, Smyth built company schools for his workers and was instrumental in enacting compulsory education laws for S.C.’s children as well as a leader in advocating laws requiring the registration of marriages and births in the state. Long before the enactment of labor laws, Smyth established a system in his mills that prevented the employment of children under 12 years of age while providing them with school. Limiting employment to children 12 and above may seem primitive nowadays, but it was a progressive move for its time and one that protected the young and gave then the opportunity to receive an education.

Pelzer Mill was Smyth’s greatest accomplishment, but it was not his only one: He also organized Belton Mills in 1899 and served as its president until 1920. In 1923, he began buying property in the Balfour community near Flat Rock and built Balfour Mills with 10,000 spindles and a village of 80 cottages. His involvement in the organization of banks for his mill communities was crucial, including Chicora Savings Bank and the Bank of Belton.

The Smyths moved from Anderson County to Greenville, S.C., where they lived for about 20 years. Smyth held a controlling interest in The Greenville News for 17 years during his time there until he sold it in 1919 to its then-manager, B.H. Peace. Smyth helped found the Cotton Manufacturers Association of S.C. and was active with the American Cotton Manufacturers Association in addition to serving on the United States Industrial Commission from 1896 to 1898.

Captain Ellison Smyth’s (as he was often called) background as a textile industrialist and banker often overshadow his other roles; he was also a great influence during the reconstruction of S.C. and in the Presbyterian Church. Both his father and his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Hart Law, D.D., (the father of his cousin, John Adger Law written about in the February and March editions of the Mercury) were Presbyterian ministers; his father served Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston for more than 40 years and his uncle at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg. With the help of Smyth, the mill communities’ Presbyterian Churches had their beginnings and organization, including Pelzer Presbyterian Church. In 1892, he contributed to the organization of The Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville and in 1912 he donated the land for the Fourth Presbyterian in Greenville.

When his family moved to Flat Rock as their primary residence, he was instrumental in the founding of the First Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville, N.C. and was largely responsible for funding the Sunday school building at the Hendersonville church in memory of his son James Adger Smyth who died in 1928. Smyth collected old books and manuscripts of S.C. history which were donated to Presbyterian College in Clinton, where he served on the board of the college for many years. In 1924, the college presented him with an honorary doctorate degree.

Joseph Ellison Adger Smyth — a devoted Presbyterian, ruling elder, supporter of new churches and S.C. textile manufacturer — died at his beloved Connemara on August 3, 1942. He is buried at his family’s home church, Second Presbyterian, in Charleston, next to his wife Julia who died in 1927. His burial marker reads, “A man resolved and steady to his trust; inflexible to ill and obstinately just” (Horace).

In the depths of World War II, the sale of Connemara was not really an option. The Ballards (the property’s caretakers) continued maintaining the property, but the house remained empty. In the summer of 1945 Connemara, came up for sale and Lilian Sandburg first saw the place in August. A sale agreement was signed a few days later and on October 18, 1945, the Smyth’s Connemara officially belonged to the Sandburgs. When Carl Sandburg died in 1967, Lilian decided to sell the house to the U.S. government to preserve it as a memorial to her husband. Today, the Carl Sandburg Home has the distinction of being the only former home of an American writer designated as a National Historic Site.

Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. and resides in Flat Rock, N.C, The Little Charleston of the Mountains A retired summer camp director and art teacher, Missy is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, journalist, community leader and the recipient of several awards including the White House Champions of Change.


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